Rev. Lyle McKenzie Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Isaiah 43:16-21 / Psalm 126 / Philippians 3:4b-14 / John 12:1-8
I think it is important to begin by recognizing the richness of all that is going on in the story we have just heard:
– Six days before the Passover… all that will happen at the Passover for Jesus, the disciples and the whole creation
– Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead… when else could we hear that phrase and all it means for Lazarus, his loved ones, all humanity
– they gave a dinner for Jesus… everything that Jesus’ eating with others, from friends to outcasts to thousands to us and all others, means, from a wedding feast in Cana to this meal at Bethany, and the meal we will share here and now
– Martha served… of course Martha served, can’t anyone else serve, just once give Martha a night off for dinner with Jesus
– Lazarus was one of those at table with Jesus… again, Lazarus dead and in the grave four days, now having dinner with Jesus
– Mary… remember how she chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, here choosing again “the better part,” (while Martha served!) taking a pound! of costly perfume of pure nard, extravagant, lavish, sensual; anointing Jesus, not his head, but his feet, and drying them with her hair; humble, generous, tender, so loving, like the way Jesus will wash the disciples’ feet; anointing Jesus’ feet, like you would the feet and whole body for someone’s burial, and the fragrance fills the whole house, and the nostrils and experience of everyone there and everyone who hears the story
– Judas… condemned a thief and a liar, criticizing the extravagance of Mary’s action claiming a concern for the poor
– Jesus… coming to Mary’s defence, “Leave her alone, she bought it for my burial;” Are Jesus and Mary the only ones who understand the death of Jesus that is about to happen?
– The poor… not Judas’ real concern, clearly Jesus’ first concern in all his actions; the poor not dismissed or justified, but the imminent death of Jesus acknowledged and honoured
All this is captured in this story from John, and we can smell the intense fragrance of the whole scene and all it means for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and for all of us since.
And what does all this, the nearness of Jesus’ Passover death, the raising of Lazarus, a meal with Jesus, Martha’s service, Mary’s extravagant love and anointing Jesus for burial, Judas’ false concern and betrayal, and the poor always with us, mean?
Does it mean that death is near, but not to be feared? On Monday two people from the palliative care response team stopped by the church to see if by chance someone was here. I walked up behind them as they were about to try the door and we met and talked. An individual was nearing death in their home and the family asked if a Lutheran pastor could be found to offer prayers. I went that afternoon and we talked, and prayed the Commendation of the dying, and shared Holy Communion encircling the bed of their loved one. They were very grateful. Death came late that evening. And when I talked to the family, they said that with God’s blessing, their loved one could go in peace. Their sadness and loss were profound, but the comfort of God’s blessing was tangible, in a presence from the church, words of scripture and prayer, and a meal of grace and peace, all because of Jesus’ Passover death that we soon commemorate once again, and every Sunday we gather.
Is the raising of Lazarus and his being present with Jesus a sign that we are never people without hope? The most outlandish hope that death is not the end, but a passage from this life to the next because of the resurrection of Christ Jesus; and even more, that this resurrection is promised not only at the end of this life, but present here and now in new life that is breaking in always for our sake, for those we love, for all who suffer, and all creation. Are Lazarus and Martha and Mary each one of us and all of us together in Jesus’ love and friendship?
Is a meal with and for Jesus what returns us to these promises of God again and again? Wednesday was the last Wine before Supper for this term, the weekly ecumenical contemplative Holy Communion and simple meal for students at the UVic Interfaith Chapel. As we were going about our Martha like service, setting out the food prepared by other Martha’s from this community for our hosting, and the bread and wine, one of the other chaplains said, you know there is a meal for students here in the chapel almost every night of the week. Students gathering to be fed in body and spirit in community. That’s amazing! But meals are central to all spiritual traditions. Meals are common ground for us across spiritual traditions. And meals are a vital point of contact with students and the campus community. In the worship, one of the students said she was fighting tears because it was ending and she would be returning to Germany, and others nodded in agreement, their lives also taking them other places, and this meal had brought us together in the love and friendship of Jesus and one another.
I thought about the Luther House supper from the Sunday before, and seeing the students enjoying a meal hosted by the Luther House students – Martha’s in training, and what that simple act of hospitality has meant over the years. I thought too of the now hundreds of meals at the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, prepared and cooked together, with nutritious food grown and gathered and shared and taken away so fewer people go hungry for food and community together. And we went from the meal at UVic to the Lenten ecumenical supper and learning hosted last week by St. Luke. Again gathering people from our different Christian traditions around a meal and conversation in the love and friendship of Jesus and together. I glanced in the kitchen to say hi and thank you, and wondered how many meals these faithful Martha’s have served over the decades, and how many here and in each of our communities for so many people to reconnect us and return us to God and one another in the love and friendship of Jesus. It’s amazing!
Is Mary’s extravagant act of love and devotion to Jesus an inspiration for our own, and a sign of God’s extravagant love for all? Some say Mary’s act of love arises from her profound gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from death to life. That could be. (Some confuse two similar stories and connect this Mary with the woman Jesus forgives of all her sins – they are not the same). What the story seems to suggest is Mary understands Jesus’ death is near. Jesus says that she bought this perfume for his burial. And anointing Jesus’ feet is what would be done if Jesus was already dead. So Mary’s perfuming Jesus’ feet and drying them with her hair is an act of profound truth telling of what Jesus is willing to give in love for her, for all Jesus’ friends and followers, and as we have come to know, for all humanity and creation, including us.
Mary sees and understands Jesus’ love even unto death. And she expresses her love for Jesus in acknowledging the truth of death that is near, and in her humble and lavish gratitude to Jesus for his love, and for others and all of us to witness. And the smell of it fills the whole room.
It is difficult to think of any parallel example of Mary’s action. It seems singular, unique. And yet it is essentially what Jesus will do with his followers at his last meal with them, following Mary’s example, and commanding they and we do the same. And it is what we will do on Maundy Thursday again this year, along with Christian people across the world. And it is in greater and lesser ways what we are called to live everyday, a humble and extravagant love for God and our neighbour. Because, and only as a result of, God’s humble and extravagant love for all creation and everyone that Jesus has shown us to be true. Mary’s extravagant love for Jesus shows us God’s and Jesus’ extravagant love for the world, and for each and everyone, and that we might do the same.
Judas’ criticism and complaint expresses the obvious and ever present conflict with our human ways of measuring and calculating, ultimately to our own benefit not that of our neighbour who is poor. Jesus exposes that falsehood, not accepting poverty as a given, but reminding us all that the need of those who are poor is always with us, calling us to extravagant love for the sake of others, especially those who are poor, like Mary and Martha and Jesus before us.
The other readings today are filled with thanksgivings in God’s being about to do a new thing, do we perceive it? In those who sowed with tears and weeping reaping with songs of joy shouldering the sheaves of harvest. In Paul’s giving up all the power and privilege that was his in the past, to gain Christ and his resurrection, not by his own doing but by faith in Christ, pressing on, made Jesus’ own, straining forward to what lies ahead in the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. All of it sounds extravagant and lavish and rich and wonderful and possible, only by God’s extravagant love, and our openness to share the same in the Spirit of Jesus, and Mary and Martha. Dear God, let it be so and the smell of it fill this room and our nostrils and the whole world. In all our relations. Amen.